Why 'Scary Stories' is a Masterclass in Making Monsters Without CGI
Director Andre Øvredal discusses his vision for adapting the iconic, nightmare-inducing children's book.
Urban legends prey on a certain kind of fear. They lurk in that uncanny valley where the personal meets the universal. When a child at a sleepover says, "It happened to my cousin's friend," what she's really telling her friends is, "It could happen to me or you." It's that ambiguous, unsettling, faceless familiarity that gives these stories their nerve-jangling staying power, and their ability to haunt us whenever we are in the quotidian circumstances they describe.
Alvin Schwartz captured this fear in his iconic '80s children's book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a collection of folklore and urban legends told with a stark, straightforward cadence and illustrated by the inimitable Stephen Gammell, whose surreal imagery drips with the distorted stuff of nightmares. The book's potent combination of bone-chilling stories and ghostly imagery struck fear in the hearts of an entire generation of American children. Now, a new film, directed by Andre Øvredal and executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro, has tried to revive its magic potion.
It only halfway succeeds.
Øvredal's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark attempts to capitalize on the power of its source material by foregrounding the film in the very act of storytelling. The movie stars Zoe Colletti as Stella, a brainy high schooler coming of age in a band of misfits in 1968 in small-town Pennsylvania. As kids are wont to do, they visit a local haunted house where a supposed child-murderer once lived. But they get more than they bargained for when Stella happens upon the ghost's diary, and the pages come alive with stories from Schwartz's book. In the background, Nixon and Vietnam loom, and Stella falls for a Mexican-American teen who has become the target of small-town racism.
The nostalgia-fueled vehicle doesn't embrace the underlying disquiet and evocative imagery that animated the book in so many young, impressionable imaginations. The director's approach to horror is respectably subversive for its political undertones, but it lacks the truly disturbing quality that got the book banned from school libraries across the country.
No Film School sat down with Øvredal to discuss how he worked with del Toro to create the movie's monsters and more.
NFS: Tell me a bit about your relationship to the book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I was captivated and horrified by it as a child, so it has a special place in the dark recesses of my imagination.
Andre Øvredal: Well, I'm from Norway, and the books were never published there. So when I got into the books, it was through this script!
I received the script from Guillermo del Toro and the Hageman brothers. I just fell in love with the world and the story and the characters. And then I read the books. I quickly understood why they are such beloved books series in America. I saw it as an honor to be chosen to direct a movie based on them.
"It was a masterclass in how to create monsters."
NFS: You had previously directed The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which I saw and loved. But that movie is much different, in terms of scope and pacing. It's a much smaller, leaner, more spare indie film.
Øvredal: Guillermo liked that film. That's partly why he chose me to direct this.
NFS: Guillermo is obviously a very visual director, and Jane Doe is a very visual film, so I can see the parallels. How did you think about building out this world, visually?
Øvredal: It has such a wonderful setting, in 1968. It was like a real story with a capital "S," where you follow these characters on a bigger journey of discovering a mystery of their own hometown, like the kind of movies I grew up with that made me fall in love with movies. And then to be able to do that as a horror movie was so great.
And, yeah, the style of Jane Doe is a very classic, simple style, and that really I love. That's kind of what I like to do with film language. And then to put that together with these creatures and monsters and try to make it as real as possible, rather than these very unreal, monstrous characters. So it was right up my alley.
NFS: Guillermo del Toro is known as one of the greatest purveyors of movie monsters. How did you work together to incorporate the monsters into the story?
Øvredal: For me, it was a masterclass in how to create monsters. I mean, of course, we took them from the drawings of Stephen Gammell [the illustrator of Scary Stories, the book]. That was the most important thing. But then, we had many conversations about how we should do it. And Guillermo was very clear: "We've got to do it for real, physically, with actors and with props and costumes and everything." That was such a relief because then you can create the scene as a scene as if the creature is an actor in a scene.
Sometimes, Guillermo would go to LA to work with the creature designers to help figure out some challenges there, with molding, etc. He's a master from the bottom up on how to do all this stuff. He has such an amazing taste and knowledge, and he doesn't ever want to create a boring creature. He always wants his creatures to be standouts—something new and fresh, and artistic at the highest level they can possibly be.
"Sometimes CG creatures can look dodgy, even on big-budget movies. And that was never a problem here."
NFS: Do you remember any specific things that you learned about designing creatures?
Øvredal: It is the attention to detail and texture. You can elevate a creature to a real character with certain aspects of design. This is important for the actors' performance, too.
There isn't that much VFX in the movie. The VFX is pretty much just enhancing little things in the creature's body. Of course, there is one scene in the police station where there is VFX. But that's really the one scene where VFX is major. The rest is an actor in a suit. Everything is for real. So while we did enhance the creatures with CGI for small details such as the blinking of eyes, every shot is, essentially, for real.
Øvredal: It's so much easier for the actors to relate to what is in front of them. I think you get much more believable performances. Also, it makes it so much easier to shape the scene, physically, on set, when you have everything there. It just simplifies the whole process and makes it very tangible. You can get everything right with the lighting so it integrates properly into the environment, and it's suddenly for real.
Sometimes CG creatures can look dodgy, even on big-budget movies. And that was never a problem here.
NFS: Is there anything that you learned specifically about shooting big-budget horror films?
Øvredal: I mean, it's not that different. The stakes are the same. You have to create an entertaining and scary and intense movie. And the acting has to be good. The basics of cinema will always be there.
Whether you're inside a little autopsy room, or you're outside with the huge skyscrapers collapsing around you, it's always about the key relationship between the camera and the actor—what's right in front of you. So that's the key thing.
But it was amazing to have all these resources. We were able to do much more technical stuff. I was able to put the camera where I wanted. I had more time to shoot the scenes more imaginatively, or more the way I felt like they should be shot.